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Full text of "Cremona violins. Four letters descriptive of those exhibited in 1873 at the South Kensington museum. Also giving the data for producing the true varnishes used by the great Cremona makers. [Reprinted from the Pall Mall Gazette.]"

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Reade, Charles 
Cremona violins 


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'HE following Letters, by Mr. CHARLES READE, were 
first published in the Pall Mall Gazette, on the 
iQth, 24th, 27th, and 3ist of August, 1872, and 
are now reprinted by permission of the editor of that paper, 
and the proof sheets have passed through the hands of their 
author for this publication of them. 

To the artist and connoisseur, the information afforded 
in these letters is of permanent value and of the utmost 
importance, as the exhibition of musical instruments at 
South Kensington in 1872 had brought together some of 
the finest examples of stringed instruments, made by the 
great Cremona makers. 

And it is most fortunate that Mr. READE has devoted 
himself to the task of examining and criticising the four 
stringed instruments, being, as he is, one of the very best 
judges we have ever had. 

It is only very long experience, coupled with the ex- 
amination of the finest instruments, that enables the best 
judges to speak with certainty as to the genuineness of 
violins ; but both artists and amateurs will have their stock 
of knowledge largely increased by a careful study of these 
letters ; and I trust this will be accepted as my apology 
for the reprinting of them. 


June, 1873. 

i:nnona Jfitibks. 

Reprinted from the PALL MALL GAZETTE, August IDt/i, IS72. 

tliis heading, for want of a better, let me sing the 
four stringed instruments that were made in Italy from 
about 1560 to 1760, and varnished with high-coloured 
yet transparent varnishes, the secret of which, known to number- 
less families in 1745, had vanished off the earth by 1760, and 
has now for fifty years baffled the laborious researches of violin 
makers, amateurs, and chemists. That lost art I will endeavour 
to restore to the world through the medium of your paper. But 
let me begin with other points of connoisseurship, illustrating 
them as far as possible by the specimens on show at the South 
Kensington Museum. 

The modern orchestra uses four stringed instruments, played 
with the bow : the smallest is the king ; its construction is a 
marvel of art ; and, as we are too apt to underrate familiar 
miracles, let me analyze this wooden paragon, by way of showing 
what great architects in wood those Italians were, who invented 
this instrument and its fellows at Brescia and Bologna. The 
violin itself, apart from its mere accessories, consists of a scroll 
or head, weighing an ounce or two, a slim neck, a thin back, that 
ought to be made of Swiss sycamore, a thin belly of Swiss deal, 
and sides of Swiss sycamore no thicker than a sixpence. This 
little wooden shell delivers an amount of sound that is simply 
monstrous ; but, to do that, it must submit to a strain of which 
the public has no conception. Let us suppose two Claimants to 
take opposite ends of a violin-string, and to pull against each 
other with all their weight; the tension of the string so produced 
would not equal the tension which is created by the screw in 
raising that string to concert pitch. Consider, then, that not one 
but four strings tug night and day, like a team of demons, at the 
wafer-like sides of this wooden shell. Why does it not collapse ? 


Well, it would collapse with a crash, long before the strings 
reached concert pitch, if the violin was not a wonder inside as 
well as out. The problem was to withstand that severe pressure 
without crippling the vast vibration by solidity. The inventors 
approached the difficulty thus : they inserted six blocks of lime, 
or some light, wood ; one of these blocks at the lower end of the 
violin, one at the upper, and one at each corner the corner 
blocks very small and triangular ; the top and bottom blocks 
much larger, and shaped like a capital D, the straight line of the 
block lying close to the sides, and the curved line outwards. 
Then they slightly connected all the blocks by two sets of linings; 
these linings are not above a quarter of an inch deep, I suppose, 
and no thicker than an old penny piece, but they connect those 
six blocks and help to distribute the resistance. 

Even so the shell would succumb in time ; but now the inventor 
killed two birds with one stone ; he cunningly diverted a portion 
of the pressure by the very means that were necessary to the 
sound. He placed the bridge on the belly of the violin, and 
that raised the strings out of the direct line of tension, and 
relieved the lateral pressure at the expense of the belly. But 
as the belly is a weak arch, it must now be strengthened in its 
turn. Accordingly, a bass-bar was glued horizontally to the belly 
under one foot of the bridge. This bass-bar is a very small piece 
of deal, about the length and half the size of an old-fashioned 
lead pencil, but, the ends being tapered oft', it is glued on to 
the belly, with a spring in it, and supports the belly magically. 
As a proof how nicely all these things were balanced, the bass- 
bar of Gasparo da Salo, the Amati, and Stradiuarius being a 
little shorter and shallower than a modern bass-bar, did admirably 
for their day, yet will not do now. Our raised concert pitch has 
clapped on more tension, and straightway you must remove the 
bass-bar even of Stradiuarius, and substitute one a little longer 
and deeper, or your Cremona sounds like a strung frying-pan. 

Remove now from the violin, which for two centuries has 
endured this strain, the finger-board, tail-piece, tail-pin and 
screws since these are the instruments or vehicles of tension, 
not materials of resistance and weigh the violin itself. It 
weighs, I suppose about twenty ounces : and it has fought 
hundredweights of pressure for centuries. A marvel of construc- 
tion, it is also a marvel of sound ; it is audible farther off than 
the gigantic pianoforte, and its tones in a master's hand go to the 


heart of man. It can be prostituted to the performance of 
difficulties, and often is ; but that is not its fault. Genius can 
make your very heart dance with it, or your eyes to fill ; and 
Niel Gow was no romancer, but only a deeper critic than his 
fellows, when, being asked what was the true test of a player, he 


Asking forgiveness for this preamble, I proceed to enquire 
what country invented these four-stringed and four-cornered 

I understand that France and Germany have of late raised 
some pretensions. Connoisseurship and etymology are both 
against them. Etymology suffices. The French terms are all 
derived from the Italian, and that disposes of France. I will 
go into German pretensions critically, if any one will show me 
as old and specific a German word as viola and violino, and the 
music composed for those German instruments. "Fiddle" is 
of vast antiquity ; but pearshaped, till Italy invented the four 
corners, on which sound as well as beauty depends. 

THE ORDER OF INVENTION. Etymology decides with unerring 
voice that the violoncello was invented after the violono or 
double-bass, and connoisseurship proves by two distinct methods 
that it was invented after the violin, ist, the critical method : 
it is called after the viol on, yet is made on the plan of the 
violin, with arched back and long inner bought. 2nd, the 
historical method : a violoncello made by the inventors of the 
violin is incomparably rare, and this instrument is disproportion- 
ately rare even up to the year 1610. Violino being a derivative 
of viola would seem to indicate that the violin followed the 
tenor ; but this taken alone is dangerous ; for viola is not only 
a specific term for the tenor, but a generic name that was in 
Italy a hundred years before a tenor with four strings was made. 
To go then to connoisseurship I find that I have fallen in with 
as many tenors as violins by Gasparo da Salo, who worked from 
about 1555 to 1600, and not quite so many by Gio Paolo 
Maggini, who began a few years later. The violin being the 
king of all these instruments, I think there would not be so 
many tenors made as violins, when once the violin had been 
invented. Moreover, between the above dates came Corelli, 
a composer and violinist. He would naturally create a crop of 
violins. Finding the tenors and violins of Gasparo da Salo 


about equal in number, I am driven to the conclusion that the 
tenor had an unfair start in other words, was invented first. 
I add to this that true four-stringed tenors by Gasparo da Salo 
exist, though very rare, made with only two corners, which is a 
more primitive form than any violin by the same maker appears 
in. For this and some other reasons, I have little doubt the viola 
preceded the violin by a very few years. What puzzles me more 
is to time the violon, or, as we childishly call it (after its known 
descendant), the double-bass. If I was so presumptuous as to 
trust to my eye alone, I should say it was the first of them all. 
It is an instrument which does not seem to mix with these four- 
stringed upstarts, but to belong to a much older family viz. 
the viole d'amore, da gamba, &c. In the first place, it has not 
four strings ; secondly, it has not an arched back, but a flat 
back, with a peculiar shoulder, copied from the viola da gamba ; 
thirdly, the space between the upper and lower corners in the 
early specimens is ludicrously short. And it is hard to believe 
that an eye which had observed the graceful proportions of 
the tenor and violin could be guilty of such a wretched little 
inner-bought as you find in a double-bass of Brescia. Per contra, 
it must be admitted, first, that the sound-hole of a Brescian 
double-bass seems copied from the four-stringed tribe, and 
not at all from the elder family; secondly, that the violin and 
tenor are instruments of melody or harmony, but the violon of 
harmony only. This is dead against its being invented until after 
the instruments to which it is subsidiary. Man invents only to 
supply a want. Thus, then, it is. First, the large tenor, played 
between the knees ; then the violin, played under the chin ; then 
(if not the first of them all) the small double-bass : then, years 
after the violin, the violoncello ; then the full-sized double-bass; 
then, longo tntervalloe, the small tenor, played under the chin. 

However, I do not advance these conclusions as infallible. 
The highest evidence on some of these points must surely lie in 
manuscript music of the sixteenth century, much of which is 
preserved in the libraries of Italy ; and, if Mr. Hatton or any 
musician learned in the history of his art will tell me for what 
stringed instruments the immediate predecessors of Corelli, and 
Corelli at his commencement, marked their compositions, I shall 
receive the communication with gratitude and respect. I need 
hardly say that nothing but the MS. or the editio princeps is 
evidence in so nice a matter. 


The first known maker of the true tenor, and probably of the 
violin, was Gasparo da Salo. The student who has read the 
valuable work put forth by Monsieur Fetis and Monsieur 
Vuillaume might imagine that I am contradicting them here ; 
for they quote as "luthiers" antecedent to Gasparo da Salo 
Kerlino, Duiffoprugcar, Linarolli, Dardelli, and others. These 
men, I grant you, worked long before Gasparo da Salo ; I even 
offer an independent proof, and a very simple one. I find that 
their genuine tickets are in Gothic letters, whereas those of 
Gasparo da Salo are in Roman type ; but I know the works of 
those makers, and they did not make tenors nor violins. They 
made instruments of the older family, viole d'amore, da gamba, 
&c. Their true tickets are all black-letter tickets, and not one 
such ticket exists in any old violin, nor in a single genuine tenor. 
The fact is that the tenor is an instrument of unfixed dimensions, 
and can easily be reconstructed out of different viole made in 
an earlier age. There are innumerable examples of this, and 
happily the Exhibition furnishes two. There are two curious 
instruments strung as tenors, Nos. 114 and 134 in the catalogue: 
one is given to Joan Carlino, and the year 1452 ; the other to 
Linaro, and 1563. These two instruments were both made by 
one man, Ventura Linarolli, of Venice (misspelt by M. Fe'tis, 
Venturi), about the year 1520. Look at the enormous breadth 
between the sound holes ; that shows they were made to carry 
six or seven strings. Now look at the scrolls; both of them 
new, because the old scrolls were primitive things with six or 
seven screws ; it is only by such reconstruction that a tenor or 
violin can be set up as anterior to Gasparo da Salo. No. 114 
is, however, a real gem of antiquity ; the wood and varnish 
exquisite, and far fresher than nine Amatis out of ten. It is 
well worthy the special attention of collectors. It was played 
upon the knee. 

There are in the collection two instruments by Gasparo da 
Salo worth especial notice; a tenor, No. 142, and a violono, 
or primitive double bass, 199. The tenor is one of his later 
make, yet has a grand primitive character. Observe, in par- 
ticular, the scroll all round, and the amazing inequality between 
the bass sound-hole and the purfling of the belly ; this instru- 
ment and the grand tenor assigned to Maggini, and lent by 
Madame Risler, offer a point of connoisseurship worthy the 
student's attention. The back of each instrument looks full a 


century younger than the belly. But this is illusory. The simple 
fact is that the tenors of that day when not in use were not 
nursed in cases, but hung up on a nail, belly outwards. Thus 
the belly caught the sun of Italy, the dust, &c, and its varnish 
was often withered to a mere resin, while the back and sides 
escaped. This is the key to that little mystery. Observe the 
scroll of the violono 199 ! How primitive it is all round : at the 
back a flat cut, in front a single flute, copied from its true parent, 
the viola da gamba. This scroll, taken in conjunction with the 
size and other points, marks an instrument considerably anterior 
to No. 200. As to the other double-basses in the same case, 
they are assigned by their owners to Gasparo da Salo, because 
they are double purfled and look older than Cremonese violins ; 
but these indicia are valueless ; all Cremona and Milan double- 
purfled the violon as often as not; and the constant exposure 
to air and dust gives the violono a colour of antiquity that is 
delusive. In no one part of the business is knowledge of 
work so necessary. The violoni 201-2-3, are a ^ fi ne Italian 
instruments. The small violon 202, that stands by the side of 
the Gasparo da Salo 199, has the purfling of Andreas Amatus, 
the early sound-hole of Andreas Amatus ; the exquisite corners 
and finish of Andreas Amatus ; the finely cut scroll of Andreas 
Amatus ; at the back of scroll the neat shell and square 
shoulder of Andreas Amatus ; and the back, instead of being 
made of any rubbish that came to hand after the manner of 
Brescia, is of true fiddle wood, cut the bastard way of the grain, 
which was the taste of the Amati ; and, finally, it is varnished 
with the best varnish of the Amati. " Under these circumstances, 
I hope I shall not offend the owner by refusing it the inferior 
name of Gasparo da Salo. It is one of the brightest gems of 
the collection, and not easily to be matched in Europe. 



AUGUST 24th, 1812. 

IO PAOLO MAGGINI is represented at the Kensington 
Museum by an excellent violin, No. in, very fine in 
workmanship and varnish, but as to the model a trifle 
too much hollowed at the sides, and so a little inferior to some 
of his violins, and to the violin No. 70, the model of which, like 
many of the Brescian school, is simple and perfect. (Model, 
as applied to a violin, is a term quite distinct from outline.) 
In No. 70 both belly and back are modelled with the simplicity 
of genius, by even gradation, from a centre, which is the 
highest part, down to all the borders of the instrument. The 
world has come back to this primitive model after trying a 
score, and prejudice gives the whole credit to Joseph Guarnerius, 
of Cremona. As to the date of No. 70, the neatness and, 
above all, the slimness of the sound-hole, mark, I think, a 
period slightly posterior to Gasparo da Salo. This slim sound- 
hole is an advance, not a retrogression. The gaping sound-holes 
of Gasparo da Salo and Maggini were their one great error. 
They were not only ugly ; they lessened the ring by allowing 
the vibration to escape from the cavity too quickly. No. 60, 
assigned to Duiffoprugcar and a fabulous antiquity, was made 
by some 'prentice hand in the seventeenth century; but No. 70 
would adorn any collection, being an old masterpiece of Brescia 
or Bologna. 

THE SCHOOL OF CREMONA. Andreas Amatus was more 
than thirty years old, and an accomplished maker of the older 
viole, when the violin was invented in Brescia or Bologna. He 
does not appear to have troubled his head with the new 
instrument for some years; one proof more that new they were. 
They would not at first materially influence his established 
trade ; the old and new family ran side by side. Indeed it took 
the violin tribe two centuries to drive out the viola da gamba. 
However, in due course, Andreas Amatus set to work on violins. 


He learned from the Brescian school the only things they could 
teach a workman so superior viz. the four corners and the 
sound-hole. This Brescian sound-hole stuck to him all his days; 
but what he had learned in his original art remained by him too. 
The collection contains three specimens of his handiwork: Violin 
202, Mrs. Jay's violin with the modern head erroneously 
assigned to Antonius and Hieronymus ; and violoncello No. 
183. There are also traces of his hand in the fine tenor 139. 
In the three instruments just named the purfling is composed in 
best proportions, so that the white comes out with vigour ; it is 
then inlaid with great neatness. The violoncello is the gem. 
Its outline is grace itself: the four exquisite curves coincide in 
one pure and serpentine design. This bass is a violin souffle ; 
were it shown at a distance it would take the appearance of a 
most elegant violin ; the best basses of Stradiuarius alone will 
stand this test. (Apply it to the Venetian masterpiece in the 
same case.) The scroll is perfect in design and chiselled as by 
a sculptor; the purfling. is quite as fine as Stradiuarius; it is 
violin purfling, yet this seems to add elegance without meanness. 
It is a masterpiece of Cremona all but the hideous sound-hole 
that alone connects this master with the Brescian school. 

His sons Antonius and Hieronymus soon cured themselves 
of that grotesque sound-hole, and created a great school. They 
chose better wood and made richer varnish, and did many 
beautiful things. Nevertheless, they infected Italian fiddle- 
making with a fatal error, They were the first SCOOPERS. 
Having improved on Brescia in outline and details, they 
assumed too hastily that they could improve on her model. 
So they scooped out the wood about the sound-holes and all 
round, weakening the connection of the centre with the sides 
of the belly, and checking the fulness of the vibration. The 
German school carried this vice much further, but the Amati 
went too far, and inoculated a hundred fine makers with a 
wrong idea. It took Stradiuarius himself fifty-six years to get 
entirely clear of it. 

The brothers Amati are represented in this collection, first, 
by several tenors that once were noble things, but have been 
cut on the old system, which was downright wicked. It is 
cutting in the statutory sense, viz. cutting and maiming. These 
ruthless men just sawed a crescent off the top, and another off the 
bottom, and the result is a thing with the inner bought of a giant 


and the upper and lower bought of a dwarf. If one of these 
noble instruments survives in England uncut, I implore the 
owner to spare it ; to play on a ^5 tenor, with the Amati set 
before him to look at while he plays. Luckily the scrolls remain 
to us; and let me draw attention to the scroll of 136. Look at 
the back of this scroll, and see how it is chiselled the centre 
line in relief, how sharp, distinct, and fine ; this line is obtained 
by chiselling out the wood on both sides with a single tool, which 
fiddle-makers call a gauge, and there is nothing but the eye to 
guide the hand. 

There are two excellent violins of this make in the collection 
Mrs. Jay's, and the violin of Mr. C. J. Read, No. 75. This latter 
is the large pattern of those makers, and is more elegant than 
what is technically called the grand Amati, but not so striking. 
To appreciate the merit and the defect of this instrument, 
compare it candidly with the noble Stradiuarius Amatise that 
hangs by its side, numbered 82. Take a back view first. In 
outline they are much alike. In the details of work the Amati 
is rather superior; the border of the Stradiuarius is more 
exquisite ; but the Amati scroll is better pointed and gauged 
more cleanly, the purfling better composed for effect, and the 
way that purfling is let in, especially at the corners, is incompar- 
able. On the front view you find the Amati violin is scooped 
out here and there, a defect the Stradiuarius has avoided. I 
prefer the Stradiuarius sound-hole per se; but, if you look at 
the curves of these two violins, you will observe that the Amati 
sound-holes are in strict harmony with the curves ; and the 
whole thing the product of one original mind that saw its way. 

Nicholas Amatus, the son of Hieronymus, owes his distinct 
reputation to a single form called by connoisseurs the Grand 
Amati. This is a very large violin, with extravagantly long 
corners, extremely fine in all the details. I do not think it was 
much admired at the time. At all events, he made but few, 
and his copyists, with the exception of Francesco Rugger, rarely 
selected that form to imitate. But now-a-days these violins are 
almost worshipped, and, as the collection is incomplete without 
one, I hope some gentleman will kindly send one in before it 
closes. There is also wanting an Amati bass, and, if the pur- 
chaser of Mr. Gillott's should feel disposed to supply that gap, 
it would be a very kind act. The Rugger family is numerous ; 
it is represented by one violin (147.) 


Leaving the makers of the Guarnerius family five in 
number till the last, we come to Antonius Stradiuarius. This 
unrivalled workman and extraordinary man was born in 1644, 
and died in December, 1737. There is nothing signed with 
his name before 1667. He was learning his business thoroughly. 
From that date till 1736 he worked incessantly, often varying 
his style, and always improving, till he came to his climax, 
represented in this collection by the violins 83 and 87, and the 
violoncello 188. 

He began with rather a small, short-cornered violin, which is 
an imitation of the small Amati, but very superior. He went 
on, and imitated the large Amati, but softened down the corners. 
For thirty years from 1672 to 1703 he poured forth violins 
of this pattern ; there are several in this collection, and one 
tenor, 139, with a plain back but a beautiful belly, and in 
admirable preservation. But, while he was making these Amatise 
violins by the hundred, he had nevertheless his fits of originality, 
and put forth an anomaly every now and then ; sometimes it 
was a very long, narrow violin with elegant drooping corners, 
and sometimes, in a happier mood, he combined these drooping 
corners with a far more beautiful model. Of these varieties No. 86 
gives just an indication ; no more. These lucid intervals never 
lasted long, he was back to his Amati next week. Yet they 
left, I think, the germs that broke out so marvellously in the 
next century. About the year 1703 it seems to have struck him 
like a revelation that he was a greater man than his master. 
He dropped him once and for ever, and for nearly twenty 
years poured forth with unceasing fertility some admirable works, 
of which you have three fine examples, under average wear, 
hard wear, and no wear 90, 92, 91. Please look at the three 
violins in this order to realize what I have indicated before 
that time is no sure measure of events in this business. 
Nevertheless, in all these exquisite productions there was one 
thing which he thought capable of improvement there was a 
slight residue of the scoop, especially at the lower part of the 
back. He began to alter that about 1720, and by degrees went 
to his grand model, in which there is no scoop at all. This, 
his grandest epoch, is represented by the Duke of Cambridge's 
violin, Mr. Arkwright's, and M. le Comte's : this last has the 
additional characteristic of the stiffer sound-hole and the wood 
left broad in the wing of the sound-hole. One feature more 


of this his greatest epoch : the purfling instead of exactly fol- 
lowing the corner, is pointed across it in a manner completely 
original. He made these grand violins and a bass or two till 
about 1729; after that the grand model is confined to his violins, 
and the details become inferior in finish. Of this there is an 
example in No. 84, a noble but rough violin, in parts of which 
certain connoisseurs would see, or fancy they saw, the hand of 
Bergonzi, or of Francesco or Homobuono Stradiuarius. These 
workmen undoubtedly lived, and survived their father a few 
years. They seem to have worked up his refuse wood after 
his death ; but their interference with his work while alive has 
been exaggerated by French connoisseurs. To put a difficult 
question briefly: their theory fails to observe the style Stradiuarius 
was coming to even in 1 7 2 7 ; it also ignores the age of Stradiuarius 
during this his last epoch of work, and says that there exists no 
old man^ work by Stradiuarius himself; all this old man's work 
is done by younger men. However, generalities are useless on 
a subject so difficult and disputed. The only way is to get the 
doubtful violins or basses and analyze them, and should the 
Museum give a permanent corner to Cremonese instruments, 
this Francesco and Homobuono question Avill be sifted with 
examples. The minutiae of work in Stradiuarius are numerous 
and admirable, but they would occupy too much space and are 
too well known to need discourse. His varnish I shall treat 
along with the others. A few words about the man. He was 
a tall, thin veteran, always to be seen with a white leathern 
apron and a nightcap on his head ; in winter it was white wool, 
and in summer white cotton. His indomitable industry had 
amassed some fortune, and "rich as Stradiuarius" was a byword 
at Cremona, but probably more current among the fiddle- 
makers than the bankers and merchants. His price towards the 
latter part of his career was four louis d'or for a violin ; his 
best customers Italy and Spain. Mr. Forster assures us on 
unimpeachable authority that he once sent some instruments 
into England on sale or return, and that they were taken back, 
the merchant being unable to get ^5 for a violoncello. What 
ho ! Hang all the Englishmen of that day who are alive to meet 
their deserts ! However, the true point of the incident is, I think, 
missed by the narrators. The fact is that, then, as now, England 
wanted old Cremonas, not new ones. That the Amati had a 
familiar reputation here and probably a ready market can be 


proved rather prettily out of the mouth of Dean Swift. A 
violin was left on a chair. A lady swept by. Her mantua 
caught it and knocked it down and broke it. Then the witty 
Dean applied a line in Virgil's Eclogue 

Mantua vre miserae nimium vicina Cremonas. 

This was certainly said during the lifetime of Stradiuarius, and 
proves that the Cremona fiddle had a fixed reputation ; it also 
proves that an Irishman could make a better Latin pun than 
any old Roman has left behind him. Since I have diverged 
into what some brute calls anec-dotage, let me conclude this 
article with one that is at all events to the point, since it tells 
the eventful history of an instrument now on show. 

THE ROMANCE OF FIDDLE-DEALING. Nearly fifty years ago 
a gaunt Italian called Luigi Tarisio arrived in Paris one day 
with a lot of old Italian instruments by makers whose names 
were hardly known. The principal dealers, whose minds were 
narrowed, as is often the case, to three or four makers would 
not deal with him. M. Georges Chanot, younger and more 
intelligent, purchased largely, and encouraged him to return. 
He came back next year with a better lot ; and yearly increasing 
his funds, he flew at the highest game; and in the course of 
thirty years imported nearly all the finest specimens of 
Stradiuarius and Guarnerius France possesses. He was the 
greatest connoisseur, that ever lived or ever can live, because he 
had the true mind of a connoisseur and vast opportunities. He 
ransacked Italy before the tickets in the violins of Francesco 
Stradiuarius, Alexander Gagliano, Lorenzo Gaudagnini, 
Giofredus Cappa, Gobetti, Morgilato Morella, Antonio 
Mariani, Santo Magini, and Matteo Benti of Brescia, Michel 
Angelo Bergonzi, Montagnana, Thomas Balestrieri, Storioni, 
Vicenzo Rugger, the Testori, Petrus Guarnerius, of Venice, and 
full fifty more, had been tampered with, that every brilliant 
masterpiece might be assigned to some popular name. To his 
immortal credit, he fought against this mania, and his motto was 
"A tout seigneur tout honneur." The man's whole soul was in 
fiddles. He was a great dealer, but a greater amateur. He 
had gems by him no money would buy from him. No. 91 was 
one of them. But for his death you would never have cast eyes 
on it. He has often talked to me of it ; but he would never 
let me see it, for fear I should tempt him. 


Well, one day Georges Chanot, Senior, who is perhaps the 
best judge of violins left, now Tarisio is gone, made an excursion 
to Spain, to see if he could find anything there. He found 
mighty little. But, coming to the shop of a fiddle-maker, one 
Ortega, he saw the belly of an old bass hung up with other things. 
Chanot rubbed his eyes, and asked himself, was he dreaming? 
the belly of a Stradiuarius bass roasting in a shop-window ! He 
went in, and very soon bought it for about forty francs. He 
then ascertained that the bass belonged to a lady of rank. The 
belly was full of cracks ; so, not to make two bites of a cherry, 
Ortega had made a nice new one. Chanot carried this precious 
fragment home and hung it up in his shop, but not in the window, 
for he is too good a judge not to know the sun will take all 
the colour out of that maker's varnish. Tarisio came in from 
Italy, and his eye lighted instantly on the Stradiuarius belly. 
He pestered Chanot till the latter sold it him for a thousand 
francs and told him where the rest was. Tarisio no sooner 
knew this than he flew to Madrid. He learned from Ortega 
where the lady lived, and called on her to see it. " Sir," says 
the lady, "it is at your disposition." That does not mean much 
in Spain. When he offered to buy it, she coquetted with him, 
said it had been long in her family ; money could not replace 
a thing of that kind, and in short, she put on the screw, as she 
thought, and sold it him for about four thousand francs. What 
he did with the Ortega belly is not known perhaps sold it to 
some person in the tooth-pick trade. He sailed exultant for 
Paris with the Spanish bass in a case. He never let it out of 
his sight. The pair were caught by a storm in the Bay of Biscay. 
The ship rolled ; Tarisio clasped his bass tight, and trembled. 
It was a terrible gale, and for one whole day they were in real 
danger. Tarisio spoke of it to me with a shudder. I will give 
you his real words, for they struck me at the time, and I have 
often thought of them since. 


Was not this a true connoisseur ? a genuine enthusiast ? Ob- 
serve ! there was also an ephemeral insect called Luigi Tarisio, 
who would have gone down with the bass : but that made no 
impression on his mind. De minimis non curat Ludovicus. 

He got it safe to Paris. A certain high priest in these mysteries, 
called Vuillaume, with the help of a sacred vessel, called the 


glue-pot, soon re-wedded the back and sides to the belly, and 
the bass being now just what it was when the ruffian Ortega put 
his finger in the pie, was sold for 20,000 fr. (^800.) 

I saw the Spanish bass in Paris twenty-two years ago, and 
you can see it any day this month you like : for it is the identical 
violoncello now on show at Kensington, numbered 188. Who 
would divine its separate adventures, to see it all reposing so 
calm and uniform in that case "Post tot naufragia tutus." 



AUGUST 27th, 1812. 

t( (HE Spanish bass" is of the grand pattern and exquisitely 
made : the sound-hole, rather shorter and stiffer than 
in Stradiuarius's preceding epoch, seems stamped out 
of the wood with a blow, so swiftly and surely is it cut. The 
purfling is perfection. Look at the section of it in the upper 
bought of the back. The scroll extremely elegant. The belly 
is a beautiful piece of wood. The back is of excellent quality, 
but mean in the figure. The sides are cut the wrong way of the 
grain ; a rare mistake in this master. The varnish sweet, clear, 
orange-coloured, and full of fire. Oh, if this varnish could but be 
laid on the wood of the Sanctus Seraphin bass ! The belly is 
full of cracks, and those cracks have not been mended without 
several lines of modern varnish clearly visible to the practised eye. 
Some years ago there was a Stradiuarius bass in Ireland. I 
believe it was presented by General Oliver to Signer Piatti. I 
never saw it ; but some people tell me that in wood and varnish 
it surpasses the Spanish bass. Should these lines meet Signer 
Piatti's eye, I will only say that, if he would allow it to be placed 
in the case for a single week, it would be a great boon to the 
admirers of these rare and noble pieces, and very instructive. 
By the side of the Spanish bass stands another, inferior to it in 
model and general work, superior to it in preservation, No. 
187. The unhappy parts are the wood of the sides and the 
scroll. Bad wood kills good varnish. The scroll is superb in 
workmanship ; it is more finely cut at the back part than the 
scroll of the Spanish bass ; but it is cut out of a pear tree, and 
that abominable wood gets uglier if possible under varnish, and 
lessens the effect even of first-class work. On the other hand, 
the back and belly, where the varnish gets fair play, are beautiful. 
The belly is incomparable. Here is the very finest ruby varnish 
of Stradiuarius, as pure as the day it was laid on. The back was 
the same colour originally, but has been reduced in tint by the 
friction this part of a bass encounters when played on. The 


varnish on the back is chipped all over in a manner most 
picturesque to the cultivated eye ; only it rmist go no farther. 
I find on examination that these chips have all been done a 
good many years ago, and I can give you a fair, though of course 
not an exact, idea of the process. Methinks I see an old 
gentleman seated sipping his last glass of port in the dining-room 
over a shining table, whence the cloth was removed for dessert. 
He wears a little powder still, though no longer the fashion ; 
he has no shirt-collar, but a roll of soft and snowy cambric 
round his neck, a plain gold pin, and a frilled bosom. He has 
a white waistcoat snow-white like his linen : he washes at 
home and a blue coat with gilt buttons. Item, a large fob or 
watch-pocket, whence bulges a golden turnip, and puts forth 
seed, to wit a bunch of seals and watch-keys, with perhaps a 
gold pencil-case. One of these seals is larger than the others : 
the family arms are engraved on it, and only important letters 
are signed with it. He rises and goes to the drawing-room. 
The piano is opened ; a servant brings the Stradiuarius bass from 
the study ; the old gentleman takes it and tunes it, and, not to 
be bothered with his lapels, buttons his coat, and plays his part 
in a quartett of Haydn or a symphony of Corelli, and smiles 
as he plays, because he really loves music, and is not over- 
weighted. Your modern amateur, with a face of justifiable 
agony, ploughs the hill of Beethoven and harrows the soul of 
Reade. Nevertheless, my smiling senior is all the time bringing 
the finest and most delicate varnish of Stradiuarius into a series 
of gentle collisions with the following objects : First, the gold 
pin ; then the two rows of brass buttons ; and last, not least, 
the male chatelaine of the period. There is an oval chip just 
off the centre of this bass ; I give the armorial seal especial 
credit for that : "a tout Seigneur tout honneur." 

Take another specimen of eccentric wear: the red Stradiuarius 
kit 88. The enormous oval wear has been done thus : It has 
belonged to a dancing-master, and he has clapped it under his 
arm fifty times a day to show his pupils the steps. 

The Guarnerius family consisted of Andreas, his two sons 
Petrus and Joseph, his grandson Petrus Guarnerius of Venice, 
and Joseph Guarnerius, the greatest of the family, whom Mons. 
Fetis considers identical with Guiseppe Antonio, born in 1683. 
There are, however, great difficulties in the way of this theory, 
which I will reserve for my miscellaneous remarks. 


Andreas Guarnerius was the closest of all the copyists of the 
Amati ; so close, indeed, that his genuine violins are nearly always 
sold as Amati. Unfortunately he imitated the small pattern. 
His wood and varnish are exactly like Amati ; there is, however, 
a peculiar way of cutting the lower wing of his sound-holes that 
betrays him at once. When you find him with the border high 
and broad, and the purfling grand, you may suspect his son 
Petrus of helping him, for his own style is petty. His basses 
few, but fine. Petrus Guarnerius of Cremona makes volins 
prodigiously bombes, and more adapted to grumbling inside than 
singing out ; but their appearance magnificent : a grand deep 
border, very noble, sound-hole and scroll Amatise, and a deep 
orange varnish that nothing can surpass. His violins are 
singularly scarce in England. I hope to see one at the 
Exhibition before it closes. 

Joseph, his brother, is a thorough original. His violins are 
narrowed under the shoulder in a way all his own. As to model, 
his fiddles are bombes like his brother's ; and, as the centre has 
generally sunk from weakness, the violin presents a great bump 
at the upper part and another at the lower. The violin 97 is 
by this maker, and is in pure and perfect condition ; but the wood 
having no figure, the beauty of the varnish is not appreciated. 
He is the king of the varnishers. He was the first man at 
Cremona that used red varnish oftener than pale, and in that 
respect was the teacher even of Stradiuarius. When this maker 
deviates from his custom and puts really good hare-wood into 
a violin, then his glorious varnish gets fair play, and nothing 
can live beside him. The other day a violin of this make with 
fine wood, but undersized, was put up at an auction without a 
name. I suppose nobody knew the maker, for it was sold on 
its merits, and fetched ^160. I brought that violin into the 
country; gave a dealer ^24 for it in Paris. 

He made a very few flatter violins, that are worth any money. 

Petrus Guarnerius, the son of this Joseph, learned his business 
in Cremona, but migrated early to Venice. He worked there 
from 1725 to 1746. He made most beautiful tenors and basses, 
but was not so happy in his violins. His varnish very fine, but 
paler than his father's. 

Joseph Guarnerius, of Cremona, made violins from about 1725 
to 1745. His first epoch is known only to connoisseurs; in 
outline it is hewed out under the shoulder like the fiddles of 


Joseph, son of Andrew, who was then an old fiddle-maker ;- but 
the model all his own ; even, regular, and perfect. Sound-hole 
long and characteristic, head rather mean for him ; he made but 
few of these essays, and then went to a different and admirable 
style,- a most graceful and elegant violin, which has been too 
loosely described as a copy of Stradiuarius ; it is not that, but 
a fine violin in which a downright good workman profits by a 
great contemporary artist's excellences, yet without servility. 
These violins are not longer nor stiffer in the inner bought than 
Stradiuarius ; they are rather narrow than broad in the central 
part, the sound-holes exquisitely cut, neither too stiff nor too 
flowing, the wood between the actual hole and the curve of the 
sound-hole remarkably broad. The scroll grandiose, yet well 
cut, and the nozzle of the scroll and the little platform below 
cut after the plan of Stradiuarius, though not so well. They 
are generally purfled through both pegs, like Stradiuarius ; the 
wood very handsome, varnish a rich golden brown. I brought 
three of this epoch into the country ; one was sold the other day 
at Christie's for ^260, (bought, I believe, by Lord Dunmore,) 
and is worth ^350 as prices go. This epoch, unfortunately, 
is not yet represented in the collection. 

The next epoch is. nobly represented by 93, 94, 95. All 
these violins have the broad centre, the grand long inner bought, 
stiffish yet not ungraceful, the long and rather upright sound-hole, 
but well cut; the grand scroll, cut all in a hurry, but noble. 
93 is a little the grander in make I think ; the purfling being set 
a hair's breadth farther in, the scroll magnificent ; but observe 
the haste the deep gauge-marks on the side ot the scroll; 
here is already an indication of the slovenliness to come: 
varnish a lovely orange, wood beautiful; two cracks in the 
belly, one from the chin-mark to the sound-hole. 94 is a violin 
of the same make, and without a single crack ; the scroll is not 
quite so grandiose as 93, but the rest incomparable ; the belly 
pure and beautiful, the back a picture. There is nothing in 
the room that equals in picturesqueness the colours of this 
magnificent piece ; time and fair-play have worn it thus ; first, 
there is a narrow irregular line of wear caused by the hand in 
shifting, next, then comes a sheet of ruby varnish, with no wear 
to speak of; then an irregular piece is worn out the size of a 
sixpence; then more varnish ; then, from the centre downwards, 
a grand wear, the size and shape of a large curving pear ; this 


ends in a broad zigzag ribbon of varnish, and then comes the 
bare wood caused by the friction in playing, but higher up to the 
left a score of great bold chips. It is the very beau-ideal of 
the red Cremona violin, adorned, not injured, by a century's 
fair wear. No. 95 is a roughish specimen of the same epoch, 
not so brilliant, but with its own charm. Here the gauge-marks 
of impatience are to be seen in the very border, and I should 
have expected to see the stiff-throated scroll, for it belongs to 
this form. 

The next epoch is rougher still, and is generally, but not 
always, higher built, with a stiff-throated scroll, and a stiff, 
quaint sound-hole that is the delight of connoisseurs ; and such 
is the force of genius that I believe in our secret hearts we love 
these impudent fiddles best they are so full of chic. After that, 
he abuses the patience of his admirers ; makes his fiddles of a 
preposterous height, with sound-holes long enough for a tenor; 
but, worst of all, indifferent wood and downright bad varnish 
varnish worthy only of the Guadagnini tribe, and not laid on by 
the method of his contemporaries. Indeed, I sadly fear it was 
this great man who, by his ill example in 1740-45, killed the 
varnish of Cremona. Thus to show the range of the subject 
out of five distinct epochs in the work of this extraordinary man 
we have only one and a half, so to speak, represented even in 
this noble collection the greatest by far the world has ever 
seen. But I hope to see all these gaps filled, and also to 
see in the collection a Stradiuarius violin of that kind I call 
the dolphin-backed. This is a mere matter of picturesque wear. 
When a red Stradiuarius violin is made of soft velvety wood, and 
the varnish is just half worn off the back in a rough triangular 
form, that produces a certain beauty of light and shade which 
is in my opinion the ne plus ultra. These violins are rare. I 
never had but two in my life. A very obliging dealer, who 
knows my views, has promised his co-operation, and I think 
England, which cuts at present rather too poor a figure in 
respect of this maker, will add a dolphin-backed Stradiuarius 
to the collection before it is dispersed. 

CARLO BERGONZI, if you go by gauging and purfling, is of 
course an inferior make to the Amati ; but, if that is to be the 
line of reasoning, he is superior to Joseph Guarnerius. We 
ought to be in one story ; if Joseph Guarnerius is the second 
maker of Cremona, it follows that Carlo Bergonzi is the third. 


Fine size, reasonable outline, flat and even model, good wood, 
work, and varnish, and an indescribable air of grandeur and 
importance. He is quite as rare as Joseph Guamerius. 
Twenty-five years ago I ransacked Europe for him for he is 
a maker I always loved and I could obtain but few. No. 
109 was one of them, and the most remarkable, take it 
altogether. In this one case he has really set himself to copy 
Stradiuarius. He has composed his purfling in the same 
proportions, which was not at all his habit. He has copied 
the sound-hole closely, and has even imitated that great man's 
freak of delicately hollowing out the lower wood-work of the 
sound-hole. The varnish of this violin is as fine in colour as 
any pale Stradiuarius in the world, and far superior in body to 
most of them ; but that is merely owing to its rare preservation. 
Most of these pale Stradiuariuses, and especially Mrs. Jay's and 
No. 86, had once varnish on them as beautiiul as is now on this 
chef-d'xuvre of Carlo Bergonzi. 

Monsieur Fetis having described Michel Angelo Bergonzi as 
a pupil of Stradiuarius, and English writers having blindly 
followed him, this seems a fit place to correct that error. 
Michel Angelo Bergonzi was the son of Carlo ; began to work 
after the death of Stradiuarius, and imitated nobody but his 
father and him vilely. His corners are not corners, but peaks. 
See them once, you never forget them ; but you pray Heaven 
you may never see them again. His tickets runs, "Michel 
Angelo Bergonzi figlio di Carlo, fece nel Cremona," from 1750 
to 1780. Of Nicholas, son of Michel Angelo, I have a ticket 
dated 1796, but he doubtless began before that and worked till 
1830. He lived till 1838, was well known to Tarisio, and it 
is from him alone we have learned the house Stradiuarius lived 
in. There is a tenor by Michel Angelo Bergonzi to be seen 
at Mr. Cox, the picture dealer, Pall-mall, and one by Nicholas, 
in Mr. Chanot's shop, in Wardour-street. Neither of these 
Bergonzi knew how their own progenitor varnished any more 
than my housemaid does. 

STAINER, a mixed maker. He went to Cremona too late to 
unlearn his German style, but he moderated it, and does not 
scoop so badly as his successors. The model of his tenor, 
especially the back, is very fine. The peculiar defect of it is 
that it is purfled too near the border, which always gives 
meanness. This is the more unfortunate, that really he was 


freer from this defect than his imitators. He learned to 
varnish in Cremona, but his varnish is generally paler than the 
native Cremonese. This tenor is exceptional : it has a rose- 
coloured varnish that nothing can surpass. It is lovely. 

SANCTUS SERAPH IN. This is a true Venetian maker. The 
Venetian born was always half-Cremonese, half-German. In 
this bass, which is his uniform style, you see a complete mastery 
of the knife and the gauge. Neither the Stradiuarius nor the 
Amati ever purfled a bass more finely, and, to tell the truth, rarely 
so finely. But oh ! the miserable scroll, the abominable sound- 
hole ! Here he shows the cloven foot, and is more German 
than Stainer. Uniformity was never carried so far as by this 
natty workman ; one violin exactly like the next ; one bass the 
image of its predecessor. His varnish never varies. It is 
always slightly opaque. This is observed in his violins, but it 
escapes detection in his basses, because it is but slight, after 
all, and the wonderful wood he put into his basses, shines 
through that slight defect and hides it from all but practised 
eyes. He had purchased a tree or a very large log of it ; for 
this is the third bass I have seen of this wonderful wood. 
Now-a-days you might cut down a forest of sycamore and not 
match it ; those veteran trees are all gone. He has a feature all 
to himself; his violins have his initials in ebony let into the belly 
under the broad part of the tail-piece. This natty Venetian is 
the only old violin maker I know who could write well. The 
others bungle that part of the date they are obliged to write in 
the tickets. This one writes it in a hand like copper plate, 
whence I suspect he was himself the engraver of his ticket, 
which is unique. It is four times the size of a Cremonese 
ticket, and has a scroll border composed thus : The sides of 
a paralellogram are created by four solid lines like sound-holes ; 
these are united at the sides by two leaves and at the centre 
by two shells. Another serpentine line is then coiled all round 
them at short intervals, and within the parallelogram the ticket 
is printed : 

Sanctus Seraphin Utinensis, 
Fecit Venetiis, anno 17 . 

THE MIGHTY VENETIAN. I come now to a truly remarkable 
piece, a basso di camera that comes modestly into the room with- 
out a name, yet there is nothing except No. 9 1 that sends such 


a thrill through the true connoisseur. The outline is grotesque 
but original, the model full and swelling but not bumpy, the 
wood detestable ; the back is hare-wood, but without a vestige 
of figure ; so it might just as well be elm : the belly, instead of 
being made of mountain deal grown on the sunny side of the 
Alps, is a piece of house timber. Now these materials would 
kill any other maker ; yet this mighty bass stands its ground. 
Observe the fibre of the belly ; here is the deepest red varnish 
in the room, and laid on with an enormous brush. Can you 
see the fibre through the thki varnish of Sanctus Seraphin as 
plainly as you can see the fibre through this varnish laid on as 
thick as paint? So much for clearness. Now for colour. Let 
the student stand before this bass, get the varnish into his mind, 
and then walk rapidly to any other instrument in the room he 
has previously determined to compare with it. This will be a 
revelation to him if he has eyes in his head. 

And this miracle comes in without a name, and, therefore, 
is passed over by all the sham judges. And why does it come 
without a name ? I hear a French dealer advised those who 
framed the catalogue. But the fact is that if a man once narrows 
his mind to three or four makers, and imagines they monopolize 
excellence, he never can be a judge of old instruments, the 
study is so wide and his mind artificially narrowed. Example 
of this false method : Mr. Faulconer sends in a bass, which he 
calls Andreas Guarnerius. An adviser does not see that, and 
suggests "probably by Amiti." Now there is no such thing as 
"probably by Amati," any more than there is probably the sun 
or the moon. That bass is by David Tecchler, of Rome ; but 
it is a masterpiece ; and so, because he has done better than 
usual, the poor devil is to be robbed of his credit, and it is to 
be given, first to one maker who is in the ring and then to another, 
ivho is in the ring. The basso di camera, which not being in 
the ring, comes without a name, is by Domenico Montagnana 
of Venice, the greatest maker of basses in all Venice or Cre- 
mona except one. If this bass had only a decent piece of wood 
at the back, it would extinguish all the other basses. But we 
can remedy that defect. Basses by this maker exist with fine 
wood. Mr. Hart, senior, sold one some twenty years ago with 
yellow varnish, and wood striped like a tiger's back. Should 
these lines meet the eye of the purchaser, I shall feel grateful 
if he will communicate with me thereupon. 


I come now to the last of the Goths, thus catalogued, No. 
100, "ascribed to Guarnerius. Probably by Storioni." 

Lorenzo Storioni is a maker who began to work at Cremona 
about 1780. He has a good model but wretched spirit varnish. 
Violin No. 100 is something much better. It is a violin made 
before 1760 by Landolfo of Milan. He is a maker well known 
to experienced dealers who can take their minds out of the ring, 
but, as the writers seem a little confused, and talk of two 
Landulphs, a Charles and a Ferdinand, I may as well say here 
that the two are one. This is the true ticket : 

Carolus Ferdinandus Landulphus, 
fecit Mediolani in via S. Mar- 
garitse, anno 1756. 

Stiff inner bought really something like Joseph Guarnerius ; but 
all the rest quite unlike : scroll very mean, varnish good, and 
sometimes very fine. Mr. Moore's, in point of varnish, is a fine 
specimen. It has a deeper, nobler tint than usual. This maker 
is very interesting, on account of his being absolutely the last 
Italian who used the glorious varnish of Cremona. It died first 
at Cremona : lingered a year or two more at Venice ; Landolfo 
retained it at Milan till 1760, and with him it ended. 

In my next and last article I will deal with the varnish of 
Cremona, as illustrated by No. 91 and other specimens, and 
will enable the curious to revive that lost art if they choose. 



AUGUST 31st, 1812. 

fiddles of Cremona gained their reputation by superior 
tone > DUt tne y n ld *t now mam ty by their beauty. For 
thirty years past violins have been made equal in model 
to the chef-d'ceuvres of Cremona, and stronger in wood than 
Stradiuarius, and more scientific than Guarnerius in the thicknesses. 
This of class violin is hideous, but has one quality in perfection 
POWER ; whilst the masterpieces of Cremona eclipse every new 
violin in sweetness, oiliness, crispness, and volume of tone as 
distinct from loudness. Age has dried their vegetable juices, 
making the carcass much lighter than that of a new violin, and 
those light dry frames vibrate at a touch. 

But M. Fetis goes too far when he intimates that Stradiuarius 
is louder as well as sweeter than Lupot, Gand, or Bernardel. 
Take a hundred violins by Stradiuarius and open them ; you 
find about ninty-five patched in the centre with new wood. 
The connecting link is a sheet of glue. And is glue a fine 
resonant substance ? And are the glue and the new wood of 
John Bull and Jean Crapaud transmogrified into the wood of 
Stradiuarius by merely sticking on to it? Is it not extravagant 
to quote patched violins as beyond rivalry in all the qualities 
of sound ? How can they be the loudest, when the centre of the 
sound-board is a mere sandwich, composed of the maker's thin 
wood, a buttering of glue, and a huge slice of new wood ? 

Joseph Guarnerius has plenty of wood ; but his thicknesses are 
not always so scientific as those of the best modern fiddle-makers; 
so that even he can be rivalled in power by a new violin, 
though not in richness and sweetness. Consider, then, these 
two concurrent phenomena, that for twenty-five years new violins 
have been better made for sound than they ever were made in this 
world, yet old Cremona violins have nearly doubled in price, 
and, you will divine, as the truth is, that old fiddles are not 
bought by the ear alone. I will add that 100 years ago, when 


the violins of Brescia and of Stradiuarius and Guarnerius were 
the only well-modelled violins, they were really bought by the 
ear, and the prices were moderate. Now they are in reality 
bought by the eye, and the price is enormous. The reason is 
that their tone is good but their appearance inimitable ; because 
the makers chose fine wood and laid on a varnish highly 
coloured, yet clear as crystal, with this strange property it 
becomes far more beautiful by time and usage : it wears softly 
away, or chips boldly away, in such forms as to make the whole 
violin picturesque, beautiful, various, and curious. 

To approach the same conclusion by a different road No. 
94 is a violin whose picturesque beauty I have described already; 
twenty-five years ago Mr. Plowden gave ^450 for it. It is now, 
I suppose, worth ^500. Well, knock that violin down and 
crack it in two places, it will sink that moment to the value of 
the "violon du diable," and be worth ,350. But collect 
twenty amateurs all ready to buy it, and, instead of cracking it, 
dip it into a jar of spirits and wash the varnish off. Not one 
of those customers will give you above ^40 for it ; nor would 
it in reality be worth quite so much in the market. Take 
another example. There is a beautiful and very perfect vio- 
lin by Stradiuarius, which the Times, in an article on these 
instruments, calls La Messie. These leading journals have 
private information on every subject, even grammar. I prefer 
to call it after the very intelligent man to whom we owe the 
sight of it the Vuillaume Stradiuarius. Well, the Vuillaume 
Stradiuarius is worth, as times go, ^600 at least. Wash off the 
varnish, it would be worth ^35 ; because, unlike No. 94, it 
has one little crack. As a further illustration that violins are 
heard by the eye, let me remind your readers of the high prices 
at which numberless copies of the old makers were sold in 
Paris for many years. The inventors of this art undertook to 
deliver a new violin, that in usage and colour of the worn parts 
should be exactly like an old and worn violin of some favourite 
maker. Now, to do this with white wood was impossible ; so 
the wood was baked in the oven or coloured yellow with the 
smoke of sulphuric acid, or so forth, to give it the colour of age ; 
but these processes kill the wood as a vehicle of sound ; and 
these copies were, and are, the worst musical instruments Europe 
has created in this century ; and, bad as they are at starting, they 
get worse every year of their untuneful existence; yet, because 


they flattered the eye with something like the light and shade and 
picturesqueness of the Cremona violin, these pseudo-antiques, 
though illimitable in number, sold like wildfire ; and hundreds 
of self-deceivers heard them by the eye, and fancied these tin- 
pots sounded divinely. The hideous red violins of Bernardel, 
Gand, and an English maker or two, are a reaction against 
those copies; they are made honestly with white wood, and they 
will, at all events, improve in sound every year and every decade. 
It comes to this, then, that the varnish of Cremona, as operated 
on by time and usage, has an inimitable beauty, and we pay a 
high price for it in second-class makers, and an enormous price 
in a fine Stradiuarius or Joseph Guarnerius. No wonder, then, 
that many violin-makers have tried hard to discover the secret 
of this varnish ; many chemists have given days and nights of 
anxious study to it. More than once, even in my time, hopes 
have run high, but only to fall again. Some have even cried 
Eureka ! to the public : but the moment others looked at their 
discovery and compared it with the real thing, "inextinguishable 
laughter shook the skies." At last despair has succeeded to all 
that energetic study, and the varnish of Cremona is sullenly given 
up as a lost art. 

I have heard and read a great deal about it, and I think I 
can state the principal theories briefly, but intelligibly. 

1. It used be to stoutly maintained that the basis was amber ; 
that these old Italians had the art of infusing amber without im- 
pairing its transparency ; once fused, by dry heat, it could be boiled 
into a varnish with oil and spirit of turpentine, and combined 
with transparent yet lasting colours. To convince me, they 
used to rub the worn part of a Cremona with their sleeves, and 
then put the fiddle to their noses, and smell amber. Then I 
burning with love of knowledge, used to rub the fiddle very 
hard and whip it to my nose, and not smell amber. But that 
might arise in some measure from there not being any amber 
there to smell. (N.B. These amber-seeking worthies never 
rubbed the coloured varnish on an old violin. Yet their theory 
had placed amber there.) 

2. That time does it all. The violins of Stradiuarius were 
raw, crude things at starting, and the varnish rather opaque. 

3. Two or three had the courage to say it was spirit varnish, 
and alleged in proof that if you drop a drop of alcohol on a 
Stradiuarius, it tears the varnish off as it runs. 


4. The far more prevalent notion was that it is an oil varnish, 
in support of which they pointed to the rich appearance of what 
they call the bare wood, and contrasted the miserable hungry 
appearance of the wood in all old violins known to be spirit 
varnished for instance, Nicholas Gagliano, of Naples, and Jean 
Baptiste Guadagnini, of Piacenza, Italian makers contemporary 
with Joseph Guarnerius. 

5 That the secret has been lost by adulteration. The old 
Cremonese and Venetians got pure and sovereign gums, that 
have retired from commerce. 

Now, as to theory No. i. Surely amber is too dear a gum 
and too impracticable for two hundred fiddle-makers to have 
used in Italy. Till fused by dry heat it is no more soluble 
in varnish than quartz is ; and who can fuse it ? Copal is 
inclined to melt, but amber to burn, catch fire, do anything but 
melt. Put the two gums to a lighted candle, you will then 
appreciate the difference. I tried more than one chemist in 
the fusing of amber ; it came out of their hands a dark brown 
opaque substance, rather burnt than fused When really fused it 
is a dark olive green, as clear as crystal. Yet I never knew but one 
man who could bring it to this, and he had special machinery, 
invented by himself, for it ; in spite of which he nearly burnt 
down his house at it one day. I believe the whole amber 
theory comes out of a verbal equivoque; the varnish of the 
Amati was called amber to mark its rich colour, and your d priori 
reasoners went off on that, forgetting that amber must be an 
inch thick to exhibit the colour amber. By such reasoning as 
this Mr. Davidson, in a book of great general merit, is misled so 
far as to put down powdered glass for an ingredient in Cremona 
varnish. Mark the logic. Glass in a sheet is transparent ; so 
if you reduce it to powder it will add transparency to varnish. 
Imposed on by this chimera, he actually puts powdered glass, 
an opaque and insoluble sediment, into four receipts for Cre- 
mona varnish. 

But the theories 2, 3, 4, 5 have all a good deal of truth in 
them ; their fault is that they are too narrow, and too blind to 
the truth of each other. IN THIS, AS IN EVERY SCIENTIFIC 


The way to discover a lost art, once practised with variations by 
a hundred people, is to examine very closely the most brilliant 


specimen, the most characteristic specimen, and, indeed, the 
most extravagant specimen if you can find one. I took that 
way, and I found in the chippiest varnish of Stradiuarius, viz., 
his dark red varnish, the key to all the varnish of Cremona, 
red or yellow. (N.B. The yellow always beat me dead, till I 
got to it by this detour.) There is no specimen in the collection 
of this red varnish so violent as I have seen ; but Mr. Pawle's 
bass, No. 187, will do. Please walk with me up to the back 
of that bass, and let us disregard all hypotheses and theories, 
and use our eyes. What do we see before us? A bass with 
a red varnish that chips very readily off what people call the 
bare wood. But never mind what these echoes of echoes call 
it. What is it ? It is not bare wood. Bare wood turns a dirty 
brown with age. This is a rich and lovely yellow. By its 
colour and its glassy gloss, and by disbelieving what echoes 
say and trusting only to our eyes, we may see at a glance it 
is not bare wood, but highly varnished wood. This varnish is 
evidently oil, and contains a gum. Allowing for the tendency 
of oil to run into the wood, I should say four coats of oil varnish : 
and this they call the bare wood. We have now discovered 
the first process : a clear oil varnish laid on the white wood 
with some transparent gum not high coloured. Now proceed 
a step further; the red and chippy varnish, what is that? 
" Oh, that is a varnish of the same quality but another colour," 
say the theorists No. 4. "How do you know?" say I. "It is 
self-evident. Would a man begin with oil varnish and then go 
into spirit varnish ?" is their reply. Now observe, this is not 
humble observation, it is only rational preconception. But if 
discovery has an enemy in the human mind, that enemy is 
preconception. Let us then trust only to humble observation. 
Here is a clear varnish without the ghost of a chip in its 
nature ; and upon it is a red varnish that is all chip. Does 
that look as if the two varnishes were homogeneous ? Is 
chip precisely the thing as no chip? If homogeneous, 
there would be chemical affinity between the two. But this 
extreme readiness of the red varnish to chip away from the 
clear marks a defect of chemical affinity between the two. 
Why, if you were to put your thumbnail against that red 
varnish, a little piece would come away directly. This is not 
so in any known case of oil upon oil. Take old Forster, 
for instance , he begins with clear oil varnish ; then on that 


he puts a distinct oil varnish with the colour and transparency 
of pea-soup. You will not get his pea-soup to chip off his clear 
varnish in a hurry. There is a bass by William Forster in the 
collection a hundred years old ; but the wear is confined to the 
places where the top varnish MUST go in a played bass. Every- 
where else his pea-soup sticks tight to his clear varnish, being 
oil upon oil. 

Now, take a perfectly distinct line of observation. In var- 
nishes oil is a diluent of colour. It is not in the power of man 
to charge an oil varnish with colour so highly as the top varnish 
of Mr. Pawle's bass is charged. And it must be remembered 
that the clear varnish below has filled all the pores of the wood ; 
therefore the diluent cannot escape into the wood, and so leave 
the colour undiluted ; if that red varnish was ever oil varnish, 
every partical of the oil must be there still. What, in that 
mere film so crammed with colour ? Never ! Nor yet in 
the top varnish of the Spanish bass, which is thinner still, yet 
more charged with colour than any topaz of twice the thickness. 
This, then, is how Antonius Stradiuarius varnished Mr. Pawle's 
bass. He began with three or four coats of oil varnish contain- 
ing some common gum. He then laid on several coats of red 
varnish, made by simply dissolving some fine red unadulterated 
gum in spirit ; the spirit evaporated and left pure gum lying on 
a rich oil varnish, from which it chips by its dry nature and its 
utter want of chemical affinity to the substratum. On the 
Spanish bass Stradiuarius put not more, I think, than two coats 
of oil varnish, and then a spirit varnish consisting of a different 
gum, less chippy, but even more tender and wearable than the 
red. Now take this key all round the room, and you will find 
there is not a lock it will not open. Look at the varnish on 
the back ot the "violon du diable," as it is called. There is 
a top varnish with all the fire of a topaz and far more colour ; 
for slice the deepest topaz to that thinness, it would pale be- 
fore that varnish. And why? ist. Because this is no oily 
dilution ; it is a divine unadulterated gum, left there undiluted 
by evaporation of the spirituous vehicle. 2nd. Because this 
varnish is a jewel with the advantage of a foil behind it; that 
foil is the fine oil varnish underneath. The purest specimen of 
Stradiuarius's red varnish in the room is, perhaps, Mr. Fountaine's 
kit. Look at the back of it by the light of these remarks. What 
can be plainer than the clear oil varnish with not the ghost of 


a chip in it, and the glossy top varnish, so charged with colour, 
and so ready to chip from the varnish below, for want of chemical 
affinity between the varnishes ? The basso di camera by 
Montagnana is the same thing. See the bold wear on the back 
revealing the heterogeneous varnish below the red. They are 
all the same thing. The palest violins of Stradiuarius and Amati 
are much older and harder worn than Mr. Pawle's bass, and 
the top varnish not of a chippy character : yet look at them 
closely by the light of these remarks, and you shall find one of 
two phenomena ^either the tender top varnish has all been worn 
away, and so there is nothing to be inferred one way or other, 
or else there are flakes of it left ; and, if so, these flakes, however 
thin, shall always betray, by the superior vividness of their colour 
to the colour of the subjacent oil varnish, that they are not oil 
varnish, but pure gum left there by evaporating spirit on a foil of 
beautiful old oil varnish. Take Mrs. Jay's Amatise Stradiuarius; 
on the back of that violin towards the top there is a mere flake 
of top varnish, left by itself; all round it is nothing left but the 
bottom varnish. That fragment of top varnish is a film thinner 
than gold leaf; yet look at "its intensity; it lies on the fine old 
oil varnish like fixed lightning, it is so vivid. It is just as 
distinct from the oil varnish as is the red varnish of the kit. 
Examine the Duke of Cambridge's violin, or any other Cremona 
instrument in the whole world you like ; it is always the same 
thing, though not so^ self-evident as in the red and chippy 
varnishes. The Vuillaume Stradiuarius, not being worn, does 
not assist us in this particular line of argument ; but it does not 
contradict us. Indeed, there are a few litttle chips in the top 
varnish of the back, and they reveal a heterogeneous varnish 
below, with its rich yellow colour like the bottom varnish of 
the Pawle bass. Moreover, if you look at the top varnish 
closely you shall see what you never see in a new violin of our 
day ; not a vulgar glare upon the surface, but a gentle inward 
fire. Now that inward fire, I assure you, is mainly caused 
by the oil varnish below ; the orange varnish above has a 
heterogeneous foil below. That inward glow is characteristic 
of all foils. If you could see the Vuillaume Stradiuarius at 
night and move it about in the light of a candle, you would be 
amazed at the fire of the foil and the refraction of light. 

Thus, then, it is. The unlucky phrase "varnish of Cremona" 
has weakened men's powers of observation by fixing a pre- 


conceived notion that the varnish must be all one thing. THE 




ALL, TENDER GUM. Gum-lac, which for forty years has been the 
mainstay of violin-makers, must never be used ; not one atom 
of it. That vile, flinty gum killed varnish at Naples and Piacenza 
a hundred and forty years ago, as it kills varnish now. Old 
Cremona shunned it, and whoever employs a grain of it, commits 
wilful suicide as a Cremonese varnisher. It will not wear ; it 
will not chip ; it is in every respect the opposite of the Cremona 
gums. Avoid it utterly, or fail hopelessly, as all varnishers have 
failed since that fatal gum came in. The deep red varnish of 
Cremona is pure dragon's blood ; not the cake, the stick, the 
filthy trash, which, in this sinful and adulterating generation, is 
retailed under that name, but the tear of dragon's blood, little 
lumps deeper in colour than a carbuncle, clear as crystal, and 
fiery as a ruby. Unadulterated dragon's blood does not exist 
in commerce west of Temple-bar ; but you can get it by 
groping in the City as hard as Diogenes had to grope for an 
honest man in a much less knavish town than London. The 
yellow varnish is the unadulterated tear of another gum, retailed 
in a cake like dragon's blood, and as great a fraud. All cakes 
and sticks presented to you in commerce as gums are audacious 
swindles. A true gum is the tear of a tree. For the yellow tear, 
as for the red, grope the City harder than Diogenes. The 
orange varnish of Peter Guarnerius and Stradiuarius is only a 
mixture of these two genuine gums. Even the milder reds of 
Stradiuarius are slightly reduced with the yellow gum. The 
Montagnana bass and No. 94 are pure dragon's blood, 
mellowed down by time and exposure only. 

A violin varnished as I have indicated will look a little better 
than other new violins from the first ; the back will look nearly 
as well as the Vuillaume Stradiuarius, but not quite. The belly 
will look a little better if properly prepared ; will show the fibre 


of the deal better. But its principal merit is, that like the violins 
of Cremona, it will vastly improve in beauty if much exposed 
and persistently played. And that improvement will be rapid, 
because the tender top varnish will wear away from the oily 
substratum four times as quickly as any vulgar varnish of the 
day will chip or wear. We cannot do what Stradiuarius could 
not do give to a new violin the peculiar beauty, that comes to 
the heterogeneous varnishes of Cremona from age and honest 
wear ; but, on the other hand, it is a mistake to suppose that 
one hundred years are required to develop the beauty of any 
Cremona varnishes, old or new. The ordinary wear of a 
century cannot be condensed into one year or five, but it can 
be condensed into twenty years. Any young amateur may live 
to play on a magnificent Cremona made for himself, if he has 
the enthusiasm to follow my directions. Choose the richest 
and finest wood ; have the violin made after the pattern of a 
rough Joseph Guarnerius ; then you need not sand-paper the 
back, sides, or head, for sand-paper is a great enemy to varnish : 
it drives more wood-dust into the pores than you can blow out. 
If you sand-paper the belly, sponge that finer dust out, as far 
as possible, and varnish when dry. That will do no harm, and 
throw up the fibre. Make your own linseed oil the linseed 
oil of commerce is adulterated with animal oil and fish oil, 
which are non-drying oils and varnish as I have indicated 
above, and when the violin is strung treat it regularly with a 
view to fast wear ; let it hang up in a warm place, exposed to 
dry air, night and day. Never let it be shut up in a case except 
for transport. Lend it for months to the leader of an orchestra. 
Look after it, and see that it is constantly played and constantly 
exposed to dry air all about it. Never clean it, never touch it 
with a silk handkerchief. In twenty years your heterogeneous 
varnishes will have parted company in many places. The back 
will be worn quite picturesque ; the belly will look as old as 
Joseph Guarnerius ; there will be a delicate film on the surface 
of the grand red varnish mellowed by exposure, and a marvellous 
fire below. In a word, you will have a glorious Cremona fiddle. 
Do you aspire to do more, and to make a downright old 
Cremona violin ? Then, my young swell, you must treat yourself 
as well as the violin; you must not smoke all day, nor the last 
thing at night ; you must never take a dram before dinner and 
call it bitters ; you must be as true to your spouse as ever you 


can, and, in a word, live moderately, and cultivate good temper 
and avoid great wrath. By these means, Deo volente, you 
shall live to see the violin that was made for you and varnished 
by my receipt, as old and worn and beautiful a Cremona as the 
Joseph Guarnerius No. 94, beyond which nothing can go. 

To show the fiddle-maker what may be gained by using as 
little sand-paper as possible, let him buy a little of Maunder's 
palest copal varnish ; then let him put a piece of deal on his 
bench and take a few shavings off it with a carpenter's plane. 
Let him lay his varnish directly on the wood so planed. It 
will have a fire and a beauty he will never quite attain to by 
scraping, sand-papering, and then varnishing the same wood with 
the same varnish. And this applies to harewood as well as 
deal. The back of the Vuillaume Stradiuarius, which is the 
finest part, has clearly not been sand-papered in places, so 
probably not at all. Wherever it is possible, varnish after cold 
steel, at all events in imitating the Cremonese, and especially 
Joseph Guarnerius. These, however, are minor details, which 
I have only inserted, because I foresee that I may be unable to 
return to this subject in writing, though I shall be very happy 
to talk about it at my own place to any one who really cares 
about the matter. However, it is not every day one can restore 
a lost art to the world ; and I hope that, and my anxiety not 
to do it by halves, will excuse this prolix article. 

2 Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge. 






Reade, Charles 
Cremona violins